Brush Up Your History! Start Quoting It Now! Mark Cohen and John Major Describe How They Approached the Task of Producing a Ground-Breaking Volume of Historical Quotations

By Cohen, Mark; Major, John | History Today, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Brush Up Your History! Start Quoting It Now! Mark Cohen and John Major Describe How They Approached the Task of Producing a Ground-Breaking Volume of Historical Quotations


Cohen, Mark, Major, John, History Today


THE FIRST QUESTION facing any compiler of historical quotations is, of course, What is, and what is not, an historical quotation? Our rough definition has been 'a quotation related directly to historical personalities, events, ideas and issues'. Thus Queen Elizabeth I's rousing declamation to her troops at Tilbury in 1588 falls into this category since it is hinged to the crisis of the Spanish Armada. What does not is her celebrated remark to the unfortunate Earl of Oxford two years after he had broken wind in making a low obeisance to her at court: 'My lord, I had forgotten the fart'. While wincingly memorable and undoubtedly made by an historic personage, it has no historical significance in the sense we understand.

Not all our quotations are spoken by historical actors, let alone by eyewitnesses. All nine thousand had to be intrinsically interesting and vivid, to our minds, or they ended up ankle-deep on the cutting-room floor. They vary in length from the one-liner to the five-liner, or even to a longer but key document. Especially in the classical and medieval periods, the sources take more time to make their point.

Our cast list expanded to include historical figures remembering the distant rather than the recent past. No testimony could be more compelling than the account of Bernal Diaz, recalling in old age his youthful part in the conquest of Mexico. Then, too, there has been room for the historians, looking back, passing judgement, agreeing and disagreeing. Historians' views are entered for their intrinsic interest in illuminating a period or an event, not to mention for the light they shed on themselves and their own generation. So we have the ultra-sceptical doyen of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, on the Holy Roman Empire of the allegedly barbarous Middle Ages: 'This agglomeration which ... was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire in any way'. Or the nineteenth-century liberal Alexander Herzen on Napoleon: 'It is possible to lead astray an entire generation, to strike it blind, to drive it insane'.

Novelists, poets and playwrights qualify for entry too, often giving an imaginative insight into the past and into the times they themselves lived through. It may be a moot point whether 'This royal throne of kings' tells us more about John of Gaunt and his times than about the Shakespeare of the history plays and English nationalism in the age of Elizabeth. But it certainly is an historical quotation we could not think of excluding. Nor could we possibly evoke the acrid flavour of the First World War without recording the voices of the writers who experienced it at first hand.

There has been no previous attempt to encompass such a span of world history in a book of quotations structured in the way we fixed on. Other compilations, including those on history or politics, arrange their entries either alphabetically by theme or personality, or on a strict year-by-year basis. None of these formats, we believed, conveyed the feeling of period and movement through time which is the essence of history. We opted to set our material in the framework of outstanding historical topics such as the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the French Revolution and the American Civil War. While in no way attempting to fashion a history of the world in quotations, this approach, we think, illustrates the past succinctly and with maximum impact. It also lends itself to both dramatic narrative and revealing analysis. Its attractions are simple and obvious, so much so that it is odd it has not to our knowledge been adopt ed before.

The scope of the work is immense. We move through five thousand years, completing the circle from the Iraq of ancient Babylon to the Iraq war of 2003, and taking in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas in a grand global sweep. Nothing less, we feel, serves to do justice to the range and complexity of the records available to history.

A book on this monumental scale could not have been produced without its contributors, each an enthusiast in a particular field. …

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